Jaime Lannister is known as the Kingslayer because he killed the Mad King, Aerys II Targaryen. He broke his oath to do so, because, well, the King had gone mad, and someone needed to do something!
The problem of what to do when the king goes mad is as old as history. In most instances, it has taken war to decide the matter.
In his Second Treatise, John Locke, wrote that,
…where the body of the people, or any single man, is deprived of their right, or is under the exercise of a power without right, and have no appeal on earth, then they have a liberty to appeal to heaven …
The American revolutionaries self-conscientiously did exactly that. In the Declaration of Independence, they asserted that it had become “necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another” to reclaim their “separate and equal station” entitled to them by “the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God.” By this, they understood themselves invoking Locke. Moreover, the first American navy had as its flag a pine tree (“liberty tree”), with the words, “An Appeal to Heaven” emblazoned on it.
In the initial disputes with England, they focused their anger on the government, while avoiding attacking the king. But in the Declaration, the explicated attacked the king, since the conflict was no longer a political dispute with this or that minister or parliamentary edict. Rather, it was England as such they were breaking with, embodied by King George.
Sovereign states require two different kinds of leadership. On the one hand, they require a “head of state”. This person embodies the unity of the country. In many countries, even today, this role is fulfilled by a king or queen. On the other hand, there is a need for a “head of government”. This person’s title is often prime minister.
Many countries, including republics like France and Germany, separate these two functions. The “president” is head of state, and the “prime minister” is head of government.
In the United States, these two functions are joined. The president of the United States is both head of state, and head of government. An important function of the head of state is to provide leadership and continuity during times of crisis. The head of government can be replaced and the office even vacant for short periods, but as long as the head of state is around, he or she provides stability.
In normal times, of course, this is not an issue. But, as with Mad King Aerys Targaryen in Westeros, emergencies do arise.
In Article II, Section 1.6, the Constitution outlines what happens in the United States if the president dies or becomes unable to carry out his duties. What the Constitution omits, however, are any clear instructions on what to do if a disabled president refuses to step aside.
This has become an issue several times in U.S. history. During his last year in office, Woodrow Wilson suffered a stroke, and the duties of president was secretly carried out for many months by his wife and his chief of staff. This is unimaginable today.
Remarkably, despite his disability, Wilson attempted to run for a third term as president again in 1920!
The need to resolve the question of presidential succession became acute again during John F. Kennedy’s presidency. The combination of the Cuban Missile Crisis and his later assassination made it obvious that any gaps in time or uncertainty about who was president could be disastrous. This led Congress to pass the 25th Amendment, outlining exactly how the process should work.
Section 1. In case of the removal of the President from office or of his death or resignation, the Vice President shall become President.
Section 2. Whenever there is a vacancy in the office of the Vice President, the President shall nominate a Vice President who shall take office upon confirmation by a majority vote of both Houses of Congress.
Section 3. Whenever the President transmits to the President pro tempore of the Senate and the Speaker of the House of Representatives his written declaration that he is unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office, and until he transmits to them a written declaration to the contrary, such powers and duties shall be discharged by the Vice President as Acting President.
Section 4. Whenever the Vice President and a majority of either the principal officers of the executive departments or of such other body as Congress may by law provide, transmit to the President pro tempore of the Senate and the Speaker of the House of Representatives their written declaration that the President is unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office, the Vice President shall immediately assume the powers and duties of the office as Acting President.
Thereafter, when the President transmits to the President pro tempore of the Senate and the Speaker of the House of Representatives his written declaration that no inability exists, he shall resume the powers and duties of his office unless the Vice President and a majority of either the principal officers of the executive department or of such other body as Congress may by law provide, transmit within four days to the President pro tempore of the Senate and the Speaker of the House of Representatives their written declaration that the President is unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office. Thereupon Congress shall decide the issue, assembling within forty-eight hours for that purpose if not in session. If the Congress, within twenty-one days after receipt of the latter written declaration, or, if Congress is not in session, within twenty-one days after Congress is required to assemble, determines by two-thirds vote of both Houses that the President is unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office, the Vice President shall continue to discharge the same as Acting President; otherwise, the President shall resume the powers and duties of his office.
The 25th Amendment has been voluntarily invoked on several occasions, most recently when President George W. Bush had a couple of medical procedures requiring him to receive anesthesia. But it has never been invoked involuntarily!
The possibility of the Vice President and Cabinet declaring the President unfit and taking over, of course, has been took good for Hollywood to pass up. There are numerous novels and movies where a crisis leads to the forced removal of the president. One of the great ones is in Season 2 of the thriller series 24:
Watch: CSG – 24 Invoking the 25th Amendment
For a list of novels, films, and TV shows about the 25th amendment being invoked, see:
The question of Kingslayer Jaime’s honor arises again and again in Game of Thrones. Who knows what his fate will be in the next episode, but the decision to become Kingslayer will always haunt him and inform others’ attitudes toward him. Many of the American Revolutionaries who pledged their “lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor” paid an enormous price for their appeal to heaven. Whether invoking the 25th Amendment, were it ever to happen, would be seen as simply a constitutional procedure, an illegitimate rebellion, or an appeal to heaven, is an open question.
1. What grounds did the American Revolutionaries have for breaking with England?
2. What grounds do you think would justify removing a president for disability?
3. How do you separate differences in policy, attitude, or style from “disability”?
4. There used to be a concept called “loyal opposition” in which people of different policies would “agree to disagree”. Do politicians and government officials still believe in the idea of “loyal opposition”?